WBAA examines race and diversity at Purdue (Part Three)

Dec 18, 2012

Purdue has no shortage of landmarks.

Its clock tower is visually appealing and the sound of its bell can be heard throughout campus.  The Engineering Fountain offers a beautiful backdrop for graduation and family photos and basketball games inside Mackey Arena spark energy into campus

These landmarks represent what Purdue is today.  But, the land they sit on was once home to Native Americans who now make up less than one percent of the student population.

“People don’t relate to that connectedness that already exists,” said Canek Phillips.

He is a second year graduate student at Purdue. His mother is of the P'urepecha people.

Phillips thinks life on campus for students with a similar ethnic background would improve if others had a better grasp of the history of Native Americans in the region.

“This state is called Indiana, which means ‘The Land of Indians,” he said.  “There are no reservations here. So, people don’t really have to think about it.  If there was something that made people aware of this social justice issue, then I think things would be a little bit different.”

Even though Phillips says there is room for growth in spreading the Native American presence on campus, he credits Purdue for being unique in how it tries to connect with students like him.

“When I came here, the Native Center really reached out to me.  They offered a lot of resources that I wouldn’t have had, like just a place to come and connect with community” he said. “It’s been great since I’ve been here.”

But he says the outreach of the Native American Educational and Cultural Center usually doesn't connect with people outside of those with a Native background, which opens the door for misunderstanding.

“If you come and you come invest in the programs that are offered, that’s kind of the way you build currency between people. it starts to pay dividends,” he said.  “But, it’s getting people to want to come to see the value that is really hard.”

For Aurelia Yazzie, her first year at Purdue has been hard.

The engineering freshman moved to West Lafayette after growing up on a Navajo reservation in Arizona.  She says she often feels out of place.

“You get questions like, I didn’t know you existed any more.  Or, ‘how do you take a shower? Do you go to the nearest lake?’,”she said.  “It was really hard for me to hear that.  It was a cultural shock.”

As the semester went on, Yazzie did begin to feel more comfortable.  

She says that was due to the outreach of the Cultural Center and her efforts to share her heritage with other students.

Tori Kissner also is working to spread her ethnic background.  The human services senior is part Cherokee and says she too has dealt with a rash of insensitivity because of her heritage.  

Like Yazzie she is speaking out about her culture, starting with the two feathers she wears in her hair.

“People kind of get a glimpse of them and they get the squinty eye ‘oh, do you have feathers in your hair?’,” she said.  “If the conversation goes that way, I explain my uncle is mom’s brother. That side of her family is the Cherokee side and that it’s native pride.” 

“It’s really just an opportunity to talk about culture.”

Kissner joined the Purdue Anti-Racism Coalition this year to raise awareness about Native Americans and equality for all students.  

Part of her role with the organization is writing a portion of a petition intended to make campus more accepting.  

The document includes demands such setting up an anti-racism grievance committee, better efforts to recruit minority students and faculty, and requiring all in-coming students to take a course on the history of race and racism in the United States.

If the petition is adopted, Kissner expects cultural acceptance, for not only Native Americans, but all minority students at Purdue to improve.

“Thinking about it not only as a current student, but a future alumnus, as potentially a parent of a future student maybe, we need to see this petition and resolution be respected and taken seriously to create this community” she said.  “So, we are not giving someone the option anymore to not be aware.  It’s not right and it should not be possible anymore.”

While the petition garners signatures, Canek Phillips encourages the entire campus community to invest some time at Purdue’s Native American Educational and Cultural Center to learn about the history of Native Americans and the place where they learn and teach.

“If people recognize how connected they are to that history like how the Battle of Tippecanoe was here and how much of their life is tied to people that only one percent remains, I’d said (campus) would be a lot different.”

If you want to check out the center for yourself, it’s located on Harrison street on the corner of Sheetz and Steely Streets.